It was one year and eight months after the first ghosts had been created. It was one year and a month plus a handful of days after the other ghost had been created. It also happened to be two years to the day that I met the love of my life. This is not coincidental, however indirect it may seem.
September 2007, late at night at Argo, our put-in for the Rogue, I met Tim. We spoke no more than the obligatory things you say to someone when you are introduced for the first time and will be working together for the next four days. Gigi, Jason and I arrived late, but Tim and Tyler arrived even later and there was work to do. We helped them unload their rafts and oar frames. All I wanted to do was crawl into my sleeping bag and fall asleep.
It wasn’t until the second evening on the river that Tim and I actually had a conversation with each other. I believe that the only reason that we did was because, in a way, we had to. We had just realized that we would be sharing a boat for 26 days through the Grand Canyon beginning in November. I figured that it might actually be a good thing to get to know who he was first.
Cat and her husband Tim, not the same Tim as introduced in the paragraphs above, but Tim nonetheless, had invited us separately to join them on their Grand Canyon trip. Unbeknownst to the two of us, we had both agreed to go. Cat and her Tim, Tim S., were students of ours at the kayak school. They had just learned how to kayak that spring to prepare specifically for the trip.
Fast forward to December. The Grand Canyon trip was over. We said our goodbyes to Cat and Tim S. after a breakfast in Flagstaff before heading our separate ways. I did not expect to ever talk to either one of them again. This is not the time or place to relay the gory details, but I will say that tensions rose, were cultivated and flourished amazingly well during those 26 days down the Colorado River. By the time we reached the café at the end, all we could see of the two that brought Tim and I together were the distorted versions of each that we saw through our filters of a long, stressful trip in the wilderness. I believe I can safely say that they saw us through similar distorted filters.
When you spend that much time with people in a setting as incredible as the bottom of the Grand Canyon, it’s impossible just to walk away like nothing ever happened. But that didn’t stop us from trying. It doesn’t help to have their images cycle through the screen saver on the computer over and over again. I welcomed in the first ghosts.
The ghosts wouldn’t leave. Sometimes they sat dormant for a while, but then they would reemerge when least expected, bringing with them feelings of regret and guilt. Ghosts thrive on regret and guilt. They grow stronger and more substantial on diets such as these.
Every once in a while I would open an email, address it Cat, and then stare at it blankly for a while before closing it. Once I looked Cat up on Facebook. That’s as far as I got. As time marches forward it becomes more awkward to say the things that are needed to banish ghosts such as those. I decided that there was nothing to be done but to accept the ghosts in my life as permanent residents.
The other ghost made its entrance in a much different way. The summer after Tim and I met on the Rogue River and propelled by Cat and Tim S. to our destiny, Jason, Tim and I returned to the Rogue for another kayak school trip. It was a new year and a new combination of people save the three of us.
Day three was a spectacular July day, the kind of day that makes you feel so happy that you are alive. The trip was progressing without incident, as expected. We eddied out to scout at Blossom Bar as usual. However on that day, there was somebody standing on a rock in the aptly named Picket Fence, the infamous sieve at the entrance of the long rapid. At the time I could not realize what an impact the words, ‘I’ll go,’ would have on my life. I had, without a second thought, volunteered to see what was happening below, in the Picket Fence.
When I reached the eddy below the rock where the figure stood, an image became burned into my brain permanently. A friend of mine from home stood on the rock looking at me with such horror in his eyes as he held a white arm stretched erect from the water. A hand the color of a ghost’s dangled from the wrist moving only in response to the shifting angles of his grasp. ‘Do you have a rope?’ he asked. That is how I found myself on the rock too, next to the limp white limb.
Our efforts to free the arm, as well as the rest of the body resulted in only recovering her PFD. As it pulled free of her body, the arm and hand sank from view and reach. She was gone as if she had never been there.
She has haunted me since. Although Tim arrived to help after she disappeared, she has haunted him too. He returned to the scene time and time again this summer as he guided trips, one after another.
But I did not return, at least not until last week. Only the river gods in cahoots with the Universe could have constructed the situation that presented itself September 2, 2009. However, the ghosts could have played a roll too. There is not doubt of that.
Since I no longer teach at the kayak school, I was not scheduled to be on the trip. However, since Tim still works for the same company doing the raft support, he was on the trip. I was able to join as his guest. How perfect since Gigi and Jason were working with me the trip two years ago that they would be on this one too! A beautiful reunion was to occur. I could never imagine how limited my view of the reunion would turn out to be.
I had a day to digest the full extent of the reunion before having to actually face it. Spending the day before the trip began with Jason and Gigi I learned that Cat and Tim S. would also be on the trip. If I could only have seen my own face when I was told this uncanny coincidence! My first thought was something akin to anger – how dare they show up and crash our perfect party?!? Of course, Cat and Tim’s now-nine-year-old son Rohan who had also been on the fateful Rogue and Grand Canyon trips of 2007 at the age of seven was coming too; as would Ray, a friend of Cat and Tim’s who was also on both 2007 trips. But it did not stop there. Another student, Ben, from the 2007 Rogue trip would also be coming along.
Tim and I sat in the company truck at the gas pump. We had a view directly into the Galice Resort café where Jason and Gigi were meeting with the clients. I could clearly see Rohan peering out of the window to see us. Tim asked how I was planning to get through this awkward reunion. I plastered a huge grin on my face. ‘This is my plan. After that, I have no idea.’
Later, talking to Cat, I learned that they had felt similar tensions when they were informed we would be there. But the grin worked its magic. We grinned at them. They grinned at us. We all must have had the same thought simultaneously – it’s going to be all right. The first ghosts began to flicker, unsure of themselves.
Reluctantly I crawled out of my warm sleeping bag on the third morning. I had to trudge to the groover three times because my guts felt like they were twisted into intricate knots. The entire trip left the beach and slid silently down the river leaving me still standing on the beach, not completely geared up to get into my kayak. I would have gladly stayed there all day to avoid meeting my next ghost that I knew was waiting silently below. If I continued I would have to come face to face with her. Of course, not continuing was not an option. But the ghost was not waiting below. It was already with me and had been the whole trip, the whole year in fact.
Cat asked if she could follow me down Mule Creek Canyon since following me two years before had been such a good experience for her. I agreed. But I couldn’t really tell if that was a responsible choice since Mule Creek Canyon is directly above Blossom Bar, the home of my ghost. I felt like I may need to follow someone through the canyon myself.
We stopped for lunch right above Mule Creek Canyon’s entrance. I met the ghost here a year prior before she was actually a ghost. Her name was Kathy and she was very alive and real sitting in her yellow raft with the rainbow windsock flag fluttering on the stern as if they were sitting on their front porch. I smiled at her and told her that her dog, an Irish setter, was beautiful. She smiled at me and thanked me. I remember thinking that her hair matched the dog’s coat.
Lunch didn’t seem appetizing. My stomach was knotted more than ever. But I made a massive deli sandwich. The year before we hadn’t stopped for lunch there. I was so hungry at Blossom Bar. I didn’t want this year’s experience to have any similarities to last year’s. I devoured the whole thing and sat in the sand with mayonnaise smeared on my face all the way up by my ear.
It was then that Cat asked me if she could also follow me down Blossom Bar. All I managed to do was splutter at her in response. Gigi turned her down for me. I couldn’t manage.
We sat in the eddy above the Mule Creek Canyon’s gates. Cat was nervous. I was terrified, although not for the same reasons. As we pealed out I asked her what our song would be. Cat looked at me quizzically. ‘Our song to sing. We need a song,’ I replied. ‘Oh yes,’ she comprehended. ‘I Feel Pretty,’ she stated. ‘What?’ Cat began to sing in her strong and lush voice:
I feel pretty
Oh so pretty
I feel pretty and witty and gay
And I pity
Any girl who isn't me today
‘You’ll have to teach it to me, Cat.’ ‘I feel pretty!’ she sang. I repeated loudly and very imperfectly. ‘Oh so pretty!’ ‘…oh so pretty!!’ We got louder and louder as we approached the entrance and even louder as we dropped in.
That trip down the canyon was probably the most fun I’d ever had. We were giggling and smiling at each other. At the end of the canyon I wanted to hug her as if she were my closest friend in the world. She had given me a gift that she had no idea that she had to give. For a short while, my mind had the task of trying to not sound so horribly off-tune next to Cat’s gorgeous voice as well as make sure that she was right-side up and in the right place on the water. This was a welcome relief to the impending weight that approaching Blossom Bar offered my mind to feed upon.
Yet, the song had to come to an end. Everyone got out to scout Blossom Bar except Gigi and me. Instead I sat in my boat, bobbing in an eddy at the base of the cliff wall that everyone was hiking up to look at the rapid. Gigi was waiting for them all to have a good view before she went down. I was waiting until she went down and was sitting in the eddy behind the Picket Fence just in case I had some sort of complete nervous breakdown. Gigi left. I was alone. Then slowly, I just let my boat drift downstream.
I paddled horribly, slapping ungracefully at the water. I almost chickened out catching the eddy, but at the last minute I turned my boat to the left and paddled. And then, there I was, sitting behind that horrible rock, hyperventilating. I ran my hands over the bumpy rock, still breathing erratically, then looked around. I positioned myself so I could see the exact spot where I first saw her white arm suspended in the air. My breathing slowed, but not my heart.
As I realized that I was fine, there would be no nervous breakdown, no uncontrollable gushing out tears, I allowed myself to begin to systematically study the currents and rocks that make up the Picket Fence, especially where Kathy’s body had been trapped. The water was much lower, so it was like I was studying bones that created the structure of the nightmare that I remembered. A piece of wood was wedged between the rocks where her body had been as if the river thought that I needed a wooden stand-in body to illustrate what had happened there.
Gigi and I sat there together for a long while before another boat came down. And then Meghan appeared. Her raft stopped abruptly with a sharp hit against the upstream side of the Picket Fence, just as I imagined Kathy’s raft had. My breathing stopped, my heart jumped. I looked upstream and could see Tim standing on the cliff watching, just like he had been the previous year. But then I looked at Meghan. She was calm. I tapped the top of my head asking if she was ok. She tapped back. She was ok. She was in control, and then I was calm, eerily calm. All I could do was watch to see how things unfolded. Eventually, the raft began to slowly slide along the rocks until the current grabbed it and the raft swung around the Fence and through the rest of the rapid, her passenger swinging her arm around above her head and whooping in triumph like she had just won a rodeo bull ride.
And then Gigi and I sat once again waiting. I looked back at the wood wedged in the rock. It was just a piece of wood.
I sat in the eddy long enough to see five more rafts and six kayaks paddle past the Fence with no incident, all having a good time. Without ceremony or even a look back, I left too.
We all met up in the eddy at the bottom on river right. I went straight to Tim’s boat. He reached down to hold me with tears in his eyes, telling my how glad he was that I was there. And so was I, I realized. And only then did I cry.
Cat and I had a long, overdue talk that evening. We hashed out the events of our Grand Canyon trip and beyond as only two women can do. The talking spilled out onto the river the next morning.
That last night, after almost everyone had gone to bed, I sat with Ben and Tim. We watched as the full moon rose, tracing a perfect parallel line against the dark ridgeline. Tim rose and wandered into the darkness. Ben, looking ahead said quietly, ‘Let go of some ghosts today, did ya?’ ‘Yep,’ I said. ‘I’ve done that before too,’ he said. And we sat in silence until it was time to wander our own ways into the darkness too.